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It’s Not Durban, but Protests Mar U.N. Conference in South Africa

If pro-Israel activists hoped that the U.N. conference on sustainable development would pass without the anti-Israel attacks that characterized last year’s U.N. summit against racism, they have been proven wrong.

On each of the conference’s first two days, Palestinian supporters attempted to turn a parallel meeting of nongovernmental organizations also taking place in Johannesburg into a forum to slander Israel — for, among other things, allegedly torturing Palestinian children, stealing Palestinian land and poisoning Palestinian water.

Yet Israeli and Jewish activists seem better prepared this year than they were at the racism conference in Durban, South Africa, where they were shocked and overwhelmed by the vehemence of the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic attacks.

The local representatives in the Jewish caucus, led by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation, had prepared kits for Jewish organizations covering a wide range of issues, including answers to media distortions against Israel. Some 50 media kits have been distributed.

In addition, pro-Israel activists are fighting back more vigorously than last year. On Monday, some 50 students shouted down the wife of jailed Palestinian militia leader Marwan Barghouti when she accused Israel of torturing her husband and sought to compare him to Nelson Mandela.

The pro-Israel activists wore T-shirts urging pro-Palestinian activists to “Stop hijacking the summit” for their partisan purposes.

They also burst frequently into peace songs in various languages, including Arabic.

Embarrassed by its poor handling of the Durban summit, the South African government has sought to dampen Palestinian attempts to obscure the conference’s environmental objectives through anti-Zionist attacks.

South Africa’s foreign affairs minister, Nkosazana Zuma, warned potential demonstrators that illegal protests would not be tolerated at this year’s conference, which runs through Sept. 4.

Indeed, when pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators squared off Monday over the Barghouti allegations, police intervened within minutes.

“This is a clear case of radical groupings seizing upon an event aimed at alleviating human suffering and using it instead as a political weapon,” said Russell Gaddin, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Mark Sofer, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, told JTA that the prompt police response seemed to bear out predictions that organizers would not allow this summit to be “Durbanized.”

The Palestinian Solidarity Committee of South Africa is planning demonstrations throughout the two-week summit. It will continue activities across South Africa through Sept. 28, the two-year anniversary of the intifada.

Tensions flared again on Tuesday, when a scuffle broke out between Palestinian supporters and young Jews, mostly Israelis, taking part in the nongovernmental section of the conference some 15 miles from the main center.

The Jewish group, largely students, held Israeli flags aloft during a presentation by Israeli representatives on solar energy. In addition, a South African man held a South African flag.

Palestinian supporters tried to remove the flags by force. Police again quickly broke up the incident.

One of the Palestinian supporters, a black South African, told a local news station that he felt the South African flag, which symbolized the blacks’ struggle against apartheid and the transition to democracy, had no place alongside a “racist flag.”

Earlier, a delegation of several dozen Palestinians held a demonstration in which they accused the Jewish National Fund of using state land to maintain an apartheid regime.

The Jewish Agency for Israel said in a statement that a group of some 30 to 50 Palestinian militants were attempting to disrupt the summit.

“We are ready for any development or the eventuality of any other provocation on their part,” said Amos Hermon, head of the Jewish Agency delegation.

The Palestinian booth at the summit has no environmental information, but much material attacking Israel. The Palestinians say they are too busy defending themselves from Israeli actions to worry about the environment.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center accused the South African government of playing politics by endorsing Palestinian calls for Israel to free Barghouti from jail, where he is awaiting trial on terrorism charges, the Jerusalem Post reported.

In a meeting with Barghouti’s lawyer Monday, South Africa’s deputy foreign minster, Aziz Pahad, agreed to support the “Free Barghouti” campaign, a Wiesenthal Center official told the paper.

Palestinians at the conference are trying to gather thousands of signatures on a petition calling on Israel to free Barghouti, and calling on the South African government to close its embassy in Tel Aviv and freeze ties with Israel. The petition also urges support for the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aksa Brigade terrorist groups, the Post reported.

Israeli judge Shlomo Shoham managed to give a speech at the main summit Monday without anti-Israel countries walking out, as they did last year.

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